Battle of Antietam Thesis

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Role of General Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Antietam

For a time, it looked like the South just might actually pull it off and succeed in the War for Southern Independence. After all, under the able leadership of General Robert E. Lee, the Confederate Army had already strung up a series of impressive victories. By 1862, all signs indicated that the Union was unable to stop this Confederate juggernaut, especially after the South invaded the North at the Battle of Antietam in late 1862 in what would result in the bloodiest one-day battle in the military history of America. For the Confederacy, this battle also represented the beginning of a lengthy series of other costly defeats, culminating in the North's victory in 1865. To determine what happened and what the consequences of the Battle of Antietam were for the United States, this paper provides a review of the relevant peer-reviewed and scholarly literature concerning the Battle of Antietam including an overview and background, the role of General Lee and his strategic victory based on primary resources such as diaries and memoirs and as well as secondary resources including historians' views on this matter. Finally, a discussion concerning the long-term implications of the battle for the Civil War is followed by a summary of the research and important findings in the conclusion.

Review and Discussion

Background and Overview

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Many of the men that marched off to war on both sides of the conflict believed that the Civil War would be over in just a few weeks. The first few months of the conflict, though, made it abundantly apparent that despite the North's overwhelming superiority in military resources, the South had the will to win and despite their logistical disadvantages, they just might be able to do it given the North's apparent inability to respond effectively to their military advances, especially at Bull Run.

Thesis on Battle of Antietam Assignment

For instance, Browne (2003) reports that, "The Civil War before the battle of Antietam seesawed back and forth between Yankee and Rebel forces, between inept Union generals and the very competent Confederate leaders. Northern generals were weak or incompetent, constantly bickering around a president they despised. Lee, on the contrary, was always ready to take a chance, win or lose."

This "win-or-lose" and "all-or-nothing" strategy of the South was abundantly clear in the Battle of Antietam where General Robert E. Lee fought the Union Army to a standstill despite paying a high price for the privilege. Some historians suggest that General McClelland could have won the war at this point if he had prosecuted his battlefield advantages. In truth, though, Lee did enjoy some strategic advantages over the North simply by virtue of better generalship. Although Lee's counterpart in the North shared a similar background, McClelland was a better desk jockey than he was a field commander. Another Northern general, perhaps, could have exploited the Battle of Antietam to the extent that the South would never have recovered and the war would have ended three years sooner, saving tens of thousands of lives and millions of dollars in national treasure in the process.

In reality, then, McClelland was the wrong man for the job but President Lincoln lacked any viable alternatives, at least from his perspective, and it was this general that would lead the Union forces against the Army of Northern Virginia at the Battle of Antietam and who General Lee would be fortunate to face at Antietam. For example, Breeding (2012) reports that, "Within a few months of the Battle of Fort Sumter, George B. McClellan's small army had driven Confederate forces out of western Virginia in the first campaign of the Civil War."

Despite this initial success, things went sour for the North as the war progressed, with Southern victory after victory leading up to the Battle of Antietam. In this regard, Breeding points out that, "After the Northern collapse at First Manassas (Bull Run), Abraham Lincoln needed a successful general to take command of the routed Federal forces, and the Union victories in the mountains of Virginia were enough to put McClelland in command."

Someone had to do the job, though, and General Lee enjoyed this strategic advantage of having McClelland leading the Northern forces from the outset of his invasion of the North. For example, Rosentreter reports that:

Students of American history are familiar with the importance of the Battle of Antietam: Confederate general Robert E. Lee's first invasion of the North; the final battle of controversial northern general George B. McClellan; a northern victory that allowed President Abraham Lincoln to change the direction of the war with his Emancipation Proclamation; and-despite terrible times since that fateful September day in 1862-the bloodiest day in American history.

Asking if he could perhaps "borrow" the Army if his favorite general was not going to use it, it is unclear why Lincoln would continue to place any trust in McClelland given his demonstrated lack of fighting spirit, preferring to organize rather than carry the battle to the enemy. In this regard, Breeding emphasizes that, "McClellan was able to build the Army of the Potomac into an effective fighting force, but Lincoln's faith in McClellan was at this point the highest it would ever be. McClellan showed himself inept at commanding a large field army and the two men quickly proved that they had little in common besides their loyalty to the Union."

Nevertheless, McClelland was who he had to do the job and with this general in charge, and in retrospect, it is only by the fates of fortune that the Army of Northern Virginia did not march into Washington, D.C. And win the war right then and there.

The Role of General Robert E. Lee

The events that led up to the Battle of Antietam are therefore more understandable given the capable generalship buoyed by the initial victories enjoyed by the South led by Lee on the one hand and the organizationally capable but weak-in-fighting spirit with McClelland on the other. The role of General Lee in fighting the Northern forces to a stalemate at Antietam was therefore based on some hard-won battlefield experiences that were required to win these previous victories. Indeed, Lee realized that it was essential to fight this war to its bloody conclusion as quickly as possible because of the enormous disparities in manpower and war-related resources that existed between the North and the South, and the Battle of Antietam was fought over these specific issues. In the spirit of taking the war to the enemy, the Battle of Antietam represented the first invasion of the North by Confederate forces during the Civil War which took place on September 17, 1862 when General Robert E. Lee led the Army of Northern Virginia into western Maryland.

On September 17, 1862, the 12-hour Battle of Antietam began at dawn and within the first seven hours, the casualties for the South amounted to at least 15,000 troops killed or wounded; all told, there were more than 23,000 casualties on both sides with more than 200,000 troops being involved.

According to the account of the battle provided by Sutherland (2001):

The peaceful countryside was unprepared for the sudden onslaught of 200,000 armed men, and the Marylanders welcomed neither Federals nor Confederates with complete enthusiasm. When the shooting started, the noise of battle was terrible, and noncombatants fled or hid in cellars. The bloody consequences shocked people, but they did what they could to attend the wounded.

Some indication of the strategy conceptualized by General McClelland for the Battle of Antietam can be discerned from his personal reports. Although Jamieson (1995) points out that, "As for McClellan's plans for the Battle of Antietam, he failed to communicate them clearly, to either his subordinates or posterity,"

Moreover, the battle unfolded in a way that confirmed the military adage that no battle plan survives the first shot and it is surprising that there were not even more causalities under the circumstances. For instance, an account of the battle provided by Civil War historian Colonel Fullenkamp (2002) notes that, "Commanders screamed orders that were rarely heard in the chaos; great billowing clouds of white smoke belched from cannon; shells ripped trenches into the plowed fields; and men were dying at a great rate on both sides of the fight."

To his credit, General McClelland did make some preliminary plans that would be followed during the day-long battle that would have significant consequences for the Confederacy. For instance, Jamieson adds that McClelland planned, "The attack against the Confederate left would be made by the corps of Hooker and Mansfield, the only ones west of the Antietam at dawn on the seventeenth. The attack on Lee's right would be made by Burnside's Ninth Corps, the sole one in position to do so."

Although other accounts placed the number of combatants at the Battle of Antietam at around 200,000, the official account provided by the U.S. National Park Services points out that, "Neither flank of the Confederate army collapsed far… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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How to Cite "Battle of Antietam" Thesis in a Bibliography:

APA Style

Battle of Antietam.  (2012, December 1).  Retrieved October 21, 2020, from

MLA Format

"Battle of Antietam."  1 December 2012.  Web.  21 October 2020. <>.

Chicago Style

"Battle of Antietam."  December 1, 2012.  Accessed October 21, 2020.